By Liz Tracy
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You may have noticed Ndakhte Ndiaye cruising around in her Honda Element with its "DJEMBE" license plate, dressed in long loose-fitting gowns called boubous from her native Senegal. You may have seen the dozens of long brown braids -- interwoven with bright blue and yellow stripes -- that tumble down her back. You may have said, "Hey, there's George Clinton!" -- until you noticed her beaming smile and perfectly made-up face. She's a white woman. And she teaches African drumming.
Ndiaye, who won't tell us her age ("It's a tradition in West Africa! It's a bad omen. God decides how many years you'll have, and it's like, 'Oh? You're counting?'"), makes a living teaching drumming at Nova Community School and at her Fort Lauderdale home, where gardens overflow with banana trees, peanut plants, and herbs. As Ndiaye puts it, "The whole yard is edible." Her dimly lit studio is equally overflowing with zebra-print tapestries, posters, and some 40 instruments -- mostly djembes ( floor drums), but also djun-djuns(double-headed drums), kryns (hollow cylinders that are hit with sticks), djeebatos (water drums), rak-a-taks(rattles), and shekeres (gourds covered with beads). When the touring production of The Lion King came to town, its drummer slept on the studio floor for eight weeks.
"Some people think, 'Oh, I touched the drum, I made a sound, now I'm a drummer!'" Ndiaye says. That 'tude might fly in the parking lot of a Phish concert, but in Africa, there are specific rhythms for every part of life -- for baby-naming ceremonies, for harvesting, for seduction -- even rhythms announcing that a crazy person is walking down the street. "There's no sheet music in West Africa," she says. "You have to learn by dancing and seeing."
Bells jingle from Ndiaye's ankles when she steps, barefoot, into the studio. Her class is part history lesson, part jam session, and part comedy show. While tuning a student's djembe by tightening the strings, she explains that the instruments are decorated with geometric patterns, because to decorate them with faces in Senegal, a Muslim country, would be considered idol worship. Each drum's head is made from goat skin and its base from the hard wood of a dimba tree. "You can make about five djembes from each tree," she explains. "People ask me, 'How tall is that tree?' Uh... about five djembes high?"
Her students -- who include a young couple, a retired musician, and a public relations professional who "searched and searched and searched" for an authentic drum teacher -- laugh and shake their heads. Ndiaye kicks out a beat; then we try to copy it. Damn! Was it ba-doom-ba-ba-chink or ba-doom-ba-chink-chink? A few students are killing it, galumphing along, playing fast, syncopated beats. As for the rest of us, Ndiaye jokes, "Security! Get them out of here!"
"Even if you have no rhythm, two left feet, you can learn to play the drum if you want to," she says. "The drum calls you, and once you're bitten, that's it." If Ndiaye's dalliance with the drum sounds like a strange love story of sorts, it is. "I fell in love with the drum," she says with a smile. "I wanted to know the rhythms, to know the dance that goes with each rhythm, to know the breaks." And though she studied in Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and Guinea, she says she'll "definitely die not knowing everything there is to know about drumming."
Ndiaye's infectious laugh indicates that she's happy, but her lifestyle begs the question: How the hell did this woman -- what with her braids and boubous and edible yard -- end up here? A mysterious smile is the answer for now. Will she ever move back to Africa? For that, she has a very Western reply: "One day, maybe... You can still get oceanfront property for $35,000."